One of the best parts of living in Scotland for a year was the chance to travel to far-flung, isolated pockets of natural beauty, ancient civilization, and whisky. Although we planned our mini-tour of Speyside with a deliberate whisky focus, Sunjay and I spent the bulk of our final holiday in Scotland exploring Orkney and Shetland. These archipelagos off the north of Scotland each have their own unique culture and personality, and I could write for a month about our experiences without being able to fully express how special these places are. If you ever get the chance, I urge you to visit, giving yourself plenty of time to get comfortable in the stark landscape and to take all the narrow, twisting dirt roads that beckon. And, if you visit Orkney, you cannot miss touring the UK’s most northerly distillery, Highland Park. (Scapa, the other distillery on Orkney, lies slightly south and is unfortunately not open for tours since it is staffed by a veritable skeleton crew of three.)
As with Glen Moray, I had never tasted Highland Park before visiting. To be honest, I’d always gotten the impression that Highland Park must be overrated: it has slick (or at least really nice) marketing, it sells several multi-thousand dollar expressions, and, well, people talk of it in hushed tones. I’m always a bit skeptical when that particular trifecta happens — I have often been disappointed when tasting “the best” of anything according to someone else, especially if I know the packaging and the marketing has played into it. And why not be skeptical? Everyone has their own preferences. In fact, I met an Aussie geologist on Shetland who had drunk the local pub out of everything BUT Highland Park because she couldn’t stand it.
I go on the record here to say, however, that Highland Park lives up to everything I’ve ever heard about it. And their distillery makes for an interesting visit to boot.
Although, unlike Balvenie, Highland Park does not do all their maltings on site, they do process a portion of their barley the traditional way, on the floor for several days, periodically turned by hand. They also dry some of their barley partially over a peat fire; the rest comes from the mainland and is totally unpeated. This is because Highland Park have their own peat bog on Orkney, where they dig and dry exclusively. If you don’t think the origin of peat makes a difference, taste Highland Park and any Islay malt side-by-side. I don’t know the chemistry behind it, but I’m willing to bet that the factors that go into the formation of peat over thousands of years make quite a difference to its flavor and character. The different environments and local flora of Orkney versus Islay versus any other parts of Scotland surely have an impact.
Highland Park keeps a distillery pig. No, it doesn’t eat the barley and in fact it lacks any porcine features. It’s just a rubber ball, the kind you might use for dodgeball, that they shove into the draff pipe when it gets clogged. (The draff is the barley that’s left after all the delicious stuff has been squeezed out in the mash tuns. It’s usually sold or given to local farmers as cattle feed. Lucky cows!) I’m guessing other distilleries have a pig too, but this was the first time I’d seen one.
The guide talked quite a bit about the distillery’s dedication to sherry casks. In fact, most of Highland Park’s spirit ends up in much-less-expensive bourbon casks, with a marriage of both bourbon and sherry before final bottling. This is a marked improvement over the old days when Highland Park would use just about any wooden cylinder they could get their hands on to age their spirit — including, it has been recorded, herring barrels! Thank goodness they’ve standardized things a bit since then, although I was surprised to find out that Highland Park has only been operating with codified recipes and procedures since the late 80s or so. Before then, things were done a bit more casually, it seems. So today’s 50 year old will likely vary quite a bit from the 50 year old of 2032. Then again, who knows where the industry will be then?
Although the tasting at Highland Park was the smallest of the week, it may have been the most satisfying. Each drop was better than the last, even when I lingered on the same expression. This was the only distillery where I couldn’t overcome the temptation to buy a bottle (though it was just a wee one).
Highland Park 12 yo
Nose: Grape, fresh cherry, bit of raisin and light caramel.
Palate: Smooth with a bit of a pleasant burn but balanced, especially with water.
Finish: Smoke and peat, short and satisfying.
Highland Park 15 yo
Nose: Vanilla and ginger; with water, brown sugar and coffee cake.
Palate: Warm, smooth, black pepper; rounded out with a drop of water.
Finish: Same peatiness as the 12 yo but longer.
Highland Park 18yo
Nose: Brine and kelp with a high sweet note at the top.
Palate: Spicy and warm, sweet and salty, with a lingering sweetness just tinged with smoke.
Finish: Again, signature peat smoke that lingers on the lips and tongue. Just superb.
Highland Park has been named “the best spirit in the world” twice. You may not agree, and that’s fine. But if you haven’t yet tasted it, I can only say, Believe the hype! And get thee to a bar ASAP to verify.